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السبت، 23 أبريل 2016

Boris and Brexit provide light relief as Obama and Cameron tackle Syria issue

Boris and Brexit provide light relief as Obama and Cameron tackle Syria issue

The Guardian
US president may back Cameron’s campaign for the UK to stay in the EU, but there is a whirlpool of other global issues to concern them
Barack Obama and David Cameron hold a news conference


Barack Obama and David Cameron have a lot to talk about besides Brexit. Photograph: Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

It would be easy to regard Barack Obama’s two-day visit to the UK as one long political broadcast for the Remain camp, all funded off the books by the US taxpayer. 
In private the president might voice doubts about how David Cameron ever managed to get himself into this mess by staging a referendum; Obama is famously pragmatic about the fights he chooses, and he might well have skipped this one. But apart from Brexit, Obama and Cameron have other serious diplomatic discussions ahead on the interconnected and intractable issues of Libya, Syria, Russia, counter-terrorism co-operation and shaping the attack on Mosul, the single largest city held by Islamic State.
In all of these fields – most being prosecuted outside the EU context, but still capable of colouring British voters’ views of the EU’s effectiveness – progress is hard to detect.
In Syria, the Geneva peace talks have effectively foundered, despite the protestations of the UN special envoy, Staffan de Mistura, that they will continue next week. In two extended sessions of talks, the team of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, refused to engage on the issue of a political transition, and the Anglo-American hopes that Russia would press Assad to shift proved ill-founded. Cameron and Obama will collectively need to reassess Vladimir Putin’s sincerity, and certainly insisting on retaining economic sanctions.
On Thursday the White House expressed concern about Russia moving equipment back into Syria, a possible sign that the war was entering a violent new phase and the Russian withdrawal was only a game.
Obama said that if the Syrian ceasefire fails, “none of the options are good”.
“The problem with any plan B that does not involve a political settlement is that it means more fighting, potentially for years,” Obama said while in Saudi Arabia for a security summit with Gulf state leaders. “Whoever comes out on top will be standing on top of a country that’s been devastated and that will then take years to rebuild.”
Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser, added: “The movement of any additional Russian military support into Syria would be inconsistent with our shared objective of getting a political process moving.”
Saad Zoubi, the chief negotiator of the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiations Committee, said that for the talks to be revived, Assad needed to release thousands of political prisoners and “stop the massacres he is committing every day”.
More than 50 people died on Tuesday in a Syrian airstrike on a market in the town of Maarrat al-Nu’man, a town that held regular protests rejecting both al-Nusra and Assad, said Gareth Bayley, Britain’s Syria envoy and a man tightly plugged into the Geneva talks.
“For the Syrian people to continue to trust this process, the cessation of hostilities [partial ceasefire] must be respected – that means an end to all targeting of civilians,” Bayley said on Thursday. The constellation of forces around Aleppo in northern Syria suggests that is unlikely to happen
The Syrian knot is so complex and intertwined, including Turkish opposition to US support for the Kurds, that it is hard to detect a credible way of defeating Isis. The Free Syrian Army remains too weak, and the cautious White House is as divided as ever on providing them more support. At the same time there are now reports that Russia is ramping up its support for the Afrin Kurds. Any Russian-fostered alliance between the Kurds and Syrian regime would severely undermine the US, and increase Turkish-Saudi military involvement.
In Iraq the picture is hardly brighter for Obama. On the plus side, the town of Hit has been liberated, reducing the Isis presence in Anbar province. The US is sending an extra battalion and providing eight Apache helicopters. The coalition has also been more successful in killing members of the Isis leadership and destroying its finances.
But attempts by the Iraqi army to move towards Mosul have been painfully slow, and the chief spokesman for the coalition in Iraq, Col Steve Warren, said it would be extremely challenging to capture such a densely populated city. The Kurdish Peshmerga forces, given an extra $415m (£290m) aid this week by the US, are also eager to take the city. Sequencing the assault will be vital.
Meanwhile inside Baghdad the government is close to political collapse as Shia parties demand more control.
Some senior generals have admitted that the decision to attack Mosul is unlikely to be taken during the Obama presidency, leaving some of the key decisions to either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump.
In Libya, Obama and Cameron admit their military intervention in 2011 failed to spot the trapdoors, and do not yet have a solution that works. The hope that a new government of national accord would be endorsed this week by Libya’s House of Representatives have been dashed. The putative government is holed up in a Tripoli naval base desperately trying to build alliances, and under political attack for being too close to the west. 
As a result the much sought invitation from the Libyan government to intervene by training a Libyan army either in Libya or Tunisia is not imminent. The British foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, returned from Libya this week to tell MPs there was a case for allied air and naval support to help a Libyan army drive Isis from its stronghold in Sirte.
In practice no such Libyan army under the control of the government exists, and the more practical decision is whether to mount an Italian-led naval blockade, ideally inside Libyan waters, to stop people-smugglers. As many as 400 refugees are thought to have drowned in the Mediterranean this week. In further bad news there were reports on Thursday that after a brief hiatus the number of migrants in boats landing in Greece from Turkey has gone back up to 150 a day, indicating that the “hermetic sealing” of this route to Europe appears to be over.
There are also fears that the Turkish government is prepared to turn the flow of migrants on and off as it negotiates with the EU for more cash and visa-free access to the EU by June. “It is a pretty ugly bazaar,” said one EU diplomat this week. Turkey is also critical to slowing the movement of foreign fighters out of Syria into Europe.
Faced by this whirlpool of problems, mainly centred on Syria, it is not that surprising that the two men will regard Brexit, and the taking down of Boris Johnson, as a welcome respite.

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